Cultural diversity in Australia's forces during World War I

 

Men of Anglo-Celtic descent seem to dominate the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the war. Close examination of war service records and other sources reveals some diversity. Men from nearly every continent and creed served in the AIF. These volunteers often had to overcome Australia's racist White Australia policy before they could be accepted. Soldiers in the AIF came from countries around the world, including Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, current-day Lebanon, Norway and the Russian Empire.

Barriers to enlistment

Most recruitment officers enforced strict enlistment standards in 1914 and 1915. Some sympathetic recruiters might have been more lenient towards enthusiastic volunteers, but many people were turned away.

Volunteers often stretched the truth about their national origins. Some simply had more lenient or sympathetic recruitment centre staff when they enlisted.

Many men anglicised their names to join. The Huey brothers of Chinese descent changed their surname to 'Hughes', and the Lang Tip family chose 'Langtip'.

After the Australian public voted against conscription in the 1916 and 1917 referendums, and with the numbers of recruits having seriously declined since mid-1915, the standards were relaxed to include Indigenous 'half-castes' and 'coloured men'.

Examples of diversity

Australian soldiers encompassed many cultural backgrounds.

General Sir John Monash is a well-known member of the AIF who was not Anglo-Celtic. His parents were born in Prussia (now Poland) to Jewish families. Monash overcame entrenched anti-Semitism and prejudice to become a leader in the Australian Army.

Chinese people had lived in Australia since the gold rushes of the 19th century. Their descendants were not sufficiently European in origin or descent to enlist in the AIF. Despite such discrimination, over 500 Australians of Chinese heritage served in the AIF during the war.

Private William 'Billy' Sing was a celebrated sniper in the Gallipoli Campaign. He was born to a Chinese father and an English mother in Clermont, Queensland. Sing also served in Egypt and France. He was repatriated to Australia in 1918, returning home with his Scottish wife. Sing was a decorated and much-respected veteran.

Studio portrait of soldier in uniform
Portrait of Private Billy Sing, 31st Battalion. AWM P03633.006

About 34,000 German-born people lived in Australia during the pre-war years. Many other Australians had parents or grandparents of German background.

The Holzhausers from Candelo in New South Wales were second-generation descendants of German immigrants who arrived in Australia in 1853. Walter and his cousins Cyril and Edgar all used the distinctly different 'Kingston' as their last name. Before the war, Walter had changed his name to 'Kingston' to marry a local girl from a racially prejudiced family.

You can see how Private Edgar Kingston crossed out the name 'Holzhauser' on his application to enlist, dated 23 August 1916. The former shopkeeper was officially welcomed home in late 1917 by his local community, who sang the National Anthem and hung out flags.

Lieutenant Dalbert Hallenstein was a promising Jewish officer of German descent from a well-known Melbourne family. After nearly 4 years of service, Hallenstein was killed in action at PĂ©ronne on 1 September 1918, only 500km from his birthplace in Heidelberg. His commanding officer described him as 'a brave man, and a capable officer' and lamented his loss.

Hallenstein's cousins Archie, Grant (killed in action), Frank (killed in action) and Roy Michaelis also served in the war.


Last updated: 6 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Cultural diversity in Australia's forces during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/cultural-diversity
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